By Paul Hewson
Back in the Wild West days, there was a gentleman named “Wild Bill” Hickok who caused quite a stir. The famous lawman/gunslinger enjoyed playing poker, up until one day in 1876 when he was shot in the back while playing at a saloon in Deadwood. The hand Hickok held at the time he was killed: Aces and Eights. The Dead Man's Hand.
Or was it? Poker blogs didn't exist at the time, so we don't have a first-hand account of what cards Hickok was holding. Nor is there any mention of Hickok holding Aces and Eights until 1926, when Frank J. Wilstach's Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers was published. Why did it take 50 years for the world to discover the Dead Man's Hand? Is it even a real thing, or is it just another tall tale from the American frontier?
We know this much for sure: the Dead Man's Hand has been around for a long time, and it hasn't always been Aces and Eights. In 2006, the American Dialect Society dug up a citation from an 1886 edition of the Grand Forks Daily Herald, where the Dead Man's Hand pops up again – but this time, it's a full house, Jacks over Tens. The author tells of how, 47 years earlier, an Illinois judge bet the farm while holding this hand, was beaten by a bigger boat (Queens over Tens), and fell back dead on the floor. Now that's a bad beat.
Other hands have also been described as the Dead Man's Hand over the years. Jacks and Sevens, Jacks and Eights, Tens and Threes... Aces and Eights appears as early as 1900 in the Waterloo Daily Courier, if the research is correct, but there's no mention of Hickok.
Cuts You Up
Not that Wilstach was necessarily playing loose with the facts. He did an extensive amount of research on Hickok, and in his biography, Wilstach cites Ellis “Doc” Pierce, the town barber. This being frontier times, barbers were also doctors and undertakers of a sort, and Pierce was in charge of the burial. According to a letter Pierce wrote to Wilstach, Hickok was clutching Aces and Eights in his cold dead hand.
Pierce went on to say that Aces and Eights had been known as the Dead Man's Hand in “the Western country” ever since the day Hickok was killed. Again, we have nothing to back that up. Maybe the nickname just didn't catch on very far until the biography was published, or maybe Pierce was embellishing his story a little bit. We might never know in the end, but there's no denying the cultural legacy that Aces and Eights has achieved. Now all we have to do is agree on the fifth card Hickok was holding.
The True Story of Aces and Eights
By Paul Hewson